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Supporting Long-Term Viability at Origin: Sustainability in Sourcing

For a deeper perspective on what it means to source coffee sustainably, I reached out to three coffee professionals engrained in the sourcing process. I spoke with Paul Hoey, Head of Coffee and Head Roaster at Vagabond Coffee Roasters in London; Pascale Schuit, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee’s Sustainable Sourcing Manager; and Sam Mccuaig, Green Coffee Buyer for Clifton Coffee Roasters just outside of Bristol. Each interviewee’s perspective informs us a little on what sustainability means for their companies, as well as tips and tricks to boost your sustainability record as an organisation.


For Paul Hoey and Vagabond Coffee Roasters, engaging in larger-scale projects helps bring their producer partners financial stability. “We're working to pay more wherever possible, to producers and through schemes like World Coffee Research's Checkoff Program,” he says.

Paul has frequent conversations with representatives of the farms in which Vagabond works with to align on the needs and direction of the farm. For example, Paul speaks often with Ricardo Canal of Finca La Lomita in Colombia, Vagabond’s first ever Direct Trade relationship.

“We work with him to build the price of his coffee, and then pay an additional 20% on top,” Paul says. “That allows for him to invest in more expensive but sustainable approaches to agriculture and provides support for his staff. It also goes to develop new processing methods for his products, which we help him to find other buyers for.”

Paul Hoey featured with Ricardo Canal (right), Head of Sales for Finca La Lomita in the United Kingdom. La Lomita was Vagabond’s first direct-trade relationship, and is still thriving today.

Sustainable payment is also at the heart of how Union Coffee and Clifton Coffee forge relationships with farmers. Sam Mccuaig of Clifton said his company has implemented what he calls the “Clifton Premium” in their relationships with producers, which was inspired by FairTrade’s approach to equitable producer payment. Last year, Clifton paid a 62 percent premium for its coffee compared to the FairTrade minimum.

“I think that the minimum price is very problematic as it distorts market forces,” says Sam. He maintains that their premium structure of an additional 20 cents per pound can be highly beneficial to producing communities if implemented properly. “It builds the wider producer communities and not just the specific beneficiaries of a single purchase,” he says.

The Clifton Premium supports producers in taking ownership of bettering their communities through real, tangible relationships and committed, structured aid. Within the Premium, Clifton supports origin-led projects organised by producers or local communities. These projects must focus on at least one of the three pillars of sustainable trade: social, environmental, and economic, with the best projects addressing multiple aims.

The selection process for the Clifton Premium is stringent, and for good reason. “The producers must apply for this premium to meet a specific project with a clearly defined Theory Of Change, practical and verifiable steps for implementation, and clearly definable KPI’s for success,” says Sam. “Assuming that the proposal passes this process, the premium is then built into our purchase price for this year’s crop.”

So far, the initiative has been met with rousing success, with several farms implementing projects that are having a positive impact on their productions and communities. Water reservoirs and irrigation networks were built for the community of Bani Pfair in the Dhamar governate of Yemen. In partnership with the FNC and the Colombian government, 91 indigenous women of the Yerwa indigenous community in Colombia were provided with two hectares each of coffee plants, new pulping facilities, 150 plantain shade trees, and agronomy training. And a project known as APAS, which focuses on the rehabilitation and release of tropical birds in the illegal pet trade in Brazil, received financial assistance.

Sam Mccuaig (middle) featured with the women of the gender development project for the Yerwa indigenous community, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, in partnership with the FNC & Colombian government.

Pascale Schuit of Union Hand-Roasted Coffees struggles with the same underlying issues as Clifton Coffee: that coffee farmers do not receive sustainable pricing for their coffee. This leads to farmers trying to reduce cost however possible, including engaging in practices that are unsustainable at best, and possibly unethical at worst. “You might have heard about child labour in the Guatemalan coffee sector, or modern slavery on Brazilian coffee plantations,” says Pascale.

But Union employs a similar pricing strategy as Clifton so their farmers don’t turn to ugly price-slashing methods. Union pays farmers 35 percent above the FairTrade minimum price, and an additional percentage on the FairTrade social premium, a financial safety net that allows the farmers to produce coffees with sustainable practices.


Pascale Schuit (far left), Sustainable Sourcing Manager for Union Coffee in London, England, visiting Indonesia

Besides simply paying a higher price for coffee, another key to supporting producers is to invest in long term relationships with them. This provides certainty that their coffee will continue to be purchased if they choose to invest in sustainable agronomic practices, which might not be the priority for a producer without that guarantee. “54% of our coffee came from producers with relations over 5 years,” Pascale says. “Long term relationships give stability and give farmers the confidence to invest in sustainable practices.”

In addition, Pascale said that Union does not purchase more than 50% of a partner’s total harvest at any one time. This reduces the amount of mutual dependency coming from that single relationship. “This is to reduce risk for both (parties),” she says. “Where possible, we grow with our existing partners, but we also engage in new relationships.” This helps to grow the specialty coffee industry at origin, ensuring the growth and longevity of our industry for years to come.


Pascale Schuit in west Ethiopia, heading up the Yayu Biosphere Reserve project to reduce the need for deforestation farming in Ilu Babor.

Union has several longstanding projects with producers to help diversify their farming practices to lessen their dependency on a single crop. It developed a network for farmers in Brazil called Bobolink, where producers work to minimise the use of agrochemicals and grey-water systems. They have also supported apiculture projects in the Guatemalan cooperatives Pueblo a Pueblo and Esquipulas, to encourage the diversification of crops they grow.

Union’s most recent project is in Ilu Babor, Ethiopia. “Together with Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and HiU Coffee, we have been working on improving the quality of the coffee of five cooperatives adjunct to Yayu Biosphere Reserve,” says Pascale. By setting up direct export channels between these farmers and Union, and helping producers to improve the quality of their coffee, farmers can earn a decent living from coffee exports. This means they no longer need to actively deforest in order to increase their landholdings. This is a project that earned Union the SCA Sustainability Award in 2019.


It’s interesting to see how sustainability is interpreted by communities themselves, and ensuring that concepts, traditions and places that they value continue to exist and thrive. I’m particularly taken by the in-progress development of the Morotwua community school in Yerwa, where the curriculum will be split equally between the preservation and proliferation of indigenous culture, agriculture and language, alongside Spanish, maths and sciences. This will provide a nuanced education to the indigenous youth without undermining their cultural roots and ancestry.

Are there positive impacts on the environment as a result of these initiatives? “Yes!” says Paul. “The work we've done with La Lomita means we now have a working model of a farm that... pays more to its staff, especially through a quality bonus scheme that pushes the pickers to take less from the trees, for an increased rate of pay and superior coffee... and is environmentally sustainable, with the increased price of the coffee supporting eco-friendly processes and 40% of the farm staying allocated as a nature reserve.”


Clifton Coffee’s support of the APAS (Wings) project, which includes the rehabilitation and release of tropical birds in the illegal pet trade in Brazil.

With so many companies jumping on the sustainability bandwagon today (and all for the better!), it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time where championing for sustainable processes might have been a struggle. I ask the trio if any of their companies have faced, or are facing, any challenges in upholding the ethos of sustainability.

Clifton Coffee has faced several issues with this goal, which include the traceability of funds towards supporting origin-led sustainability initiatives, the long-term nature of the work, and government bureaucracy. “The largest pitfalls we run up against are in more chaotic or autocratic countries where fixed costs can massively change overnight,” Sam says. “It’s very important to us that our project work is not neo-colonial in its implementation. But also we have to manage the work and ensure that the funds are ending up where they were intended, and not just lining the pockets of corrupt individuals. This is a balancing act along a tightrope that we walk.”

“The key issue has always been the low perception of the intrinsic value of coffee,” adds Paul. “We're looking to pay more, and significantly so where we can. Where we fail to communicate the value of the coffee, this industry and the people inside it, we end up paying that extra from our own margin.”

“When we started, ‘Direct Trade’ was a new concept,” says Pascale. “[With] shorter supply chains, better communication and long-term relations, several roasters are doing an excellent job. On the other hand, there are still roasters who use the term Direct Trade but there are no principles behind it.”

With a lack of clarity surrounding direct trade and how it leads to sustainable outcomes along the coffee supply chain, Pascale points to how this might confuse customers who may be putting their money towards supporting roasters that don’t necessarily have sustainability as an objective.

“Direct Trade means different things to different roasters,” Pascale says. “This is a challenge. Sustainability is complex; coffee is complex. Sustainable coffee supply chains are complex, and how to communicate all the challenges farmers face and why it is so important to pay a fair price for your coffee is not easy.”

For the trio, it’s fair to say that true sustainability isn’t just a trendy catchphrase in 2020, but an integrated means of ensuring the success and viability of their businesses well into the future. This can manifest in many ways, whether it’s implementing eco-sustainable measures in the way you deliver coffee, developing programs at origin that preserve and protect the environment, or ensuring that producing communities have a future by investing in them.


About the Author

Apart from her full-time job as Alpro UK's Coffee Specialist, Sierra Wen Xin Yeo has her fingers in several pies. Along with founding The Kore Directive, a womxn's coffee professional network and events company based in London in 2018, she also writes in her spare time for coffee publications, which include or have included Perfect Daily Grind, Caffeine Magazine in London, and Barista Magazine among others. Sierra is also certified as a licensed Q-grader.


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